How Do Employers Maintain Productivity and Reduce Stress?

Posted in : HR Updates on 26 November 2012
Nicola Shaw
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Nicola Shaw writes:

The majority of readers are working in organisations where budgets have been cut and headcount either maintained (at best) or reduced. In such a scenario, pay freezes and on occasions, pay reductions have become the norm. This makes for a difficult workplace environment with HR needing to forge a path where recognition focuses on non-remuneration, as opposed to being “all about the money”.

According to an article on the People Management website, “excessive work pressure and long hours risk damaging UK productivity”. If businesses cannot reward employees for their efforts, why are employees working such long hours and willing to make sacrifices in their personal life and to their health and wellbeing?

The core reason is that employees are scared for their long-term job role and so are willing to do whatever it will take to ensure that if there is a redundancy programme that their job will be safe. People are therefore wanting to be seen as committed and hardworking and are willing to work long hours and when sick in order to make this happen.

The knock-on impact of this is that people are over-worked and not as willing to take their annual leave and so risk burning themselves out. The survey in the article, which was completed by Towers Watson found that 10,880 UK employees, (34% of respondents) were affected by excessive work pressures.

Issues with People Working too Long Over a Protracted Period

People working in such a pressured environment are not taking their annual leave, never mind taking time off when sick. This creates a number of issues:

  • People don’t have a break from the workplace pressures and so stress builds unless an outlet is found
  • People don’t feel able to raise issues relating to workload and stress as don’t want to be seen as not being able to cope and/or seen as not being committed to the organisation
  • “Presenteeism” where people come into the workplace when they are ill and potentially infectious is a sign that people are not secure in their jobs, as they feel the need to be seen to be in work, as well as being aware that sick absence is very often one of the selection criterion in a redundancy process. According to the CIPD, in 2011 the average number of days lost to sickness was 7.7, whereas in 2012, it is 6.8 days.
  • Compliance with the working time directive is also an issue, as the report found that 26% of respondents had not taken the same amount of annual leave over the last 3 years and 58% had been working more hours than normal and expected to do so for the next 3 years:
    • Employees must take the requisite amount of annual leave each year, as it cannot be rolled over into the next leave period, unless sick absence is a factor and cannot be paid, unless on termination of employment.
    • Over the 17 week reporting period the average working week cannot exceed 48 hours per week unless the individual has voluntarily signed an opt-out clause. Employers have not only a duty of care to ensure that workers comply with the maximum working hours but also a legal obligation under the Directive.
  • Productivity is also an issue, as people will not be refreshed and working to optimum levels, as they are weary and work down by the pressures they are facing. This is more likely to result in errors and also in conflict in the workplace as people’s fuses are shorter than normal.

What Can We Do?

As HR, our role is to provide advice and guidance to the decision makers within our organisation (unless we are operating in a decision making capacity, where the responsibility is then much greater).

If the above is resonating with you then you should remind the decision-makers of their duty of care obligations and of the legislation to which there must be adherence:

  • Ensure that Health and Safety issues are regularly reported on at a top level:

1) Number of workplace accidents and compare with previous figures and target. Identify trends and potential reasons – particular Departments, particular Managers, link to hours worked that day/week/month, etc

2) Level of sick absence and compare with previous figures and target. Identify trends and potential factors – particular Departments, particular Managers, reasons for absence, any increase in stress, or stress related illnesses, etc

  • Adopt a proactive approach

1) Run health and wellbeing seminars. We are very familiar with the concept that “prevention is better than cure” and this should apply to enabling employees to help themselves. In additional to the duty of care that an employer has for its employees, employees have a duty of care and a responsibility to look after themselves and manage their personal health and wellbeing. To better enable them to do this effectively, consider running wellbeing workshops. To ensure update and less cynicism from employees, it is probably best to have these run by external bodies. This can include wellbeing consultants, or local charities, where for a small donation, they will be happy to come in and deliver a short workshop and potentially do some health assessments.

2) If you have an onsite staff restaurant, approach the contractors for this (assuming it has been outsourced) and ask if they would consider running some healthy eating workshops and menus.

3) If you don’t already offer an employee assistance programme now would be a great time to consider implementation of such a scheme, as anecdotal evidence indicates that uptake of support by employees is on the rise. If your organisation is currently considering removing your scheme in order to keep down costs, it could well be worth putting in a strong argument to retain the services.

Final Thoughts

Such reporting cannot be swept under the carpet because it is a difficult by-product of current economic conditions. As employers, there is a duty of care and a responsibility to look after the health and wellbeing of employees as well as securing ongoing employment. One should not exist at the detriment of the other and where one is being impacted, then the risks associated with this should be managed.

This will likely create difficult conversations, particularly for us in HR, but that does not mean that we should shy away from it. After all, if HR professionals are unable to initiate and manage “difficult conversations” in the workplace, what hope is there for the rest of the Managers? One big positive to bring into the conversation is the clear link that Towers Watson has been able to make between “levels of wellbeing and engagement... and organisational performance” which shows that “organisations with low engagement produced an average operating margin of around 10 per cent while organisations with high sustainable engagement performed nearly three times better with operating margins of over 27 per cent.”

As hard as it may be, we need to ensure that we operate as a business partner and work with our organisation to charter the current difficulties and come out the other side, not just with the business in once piece, but also the people who have enabled the business to survive. Our duty of care responsibilities has never been greater.


This article is correct at 09/11/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Nicola Shaw

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